April 4, 2016 — NATO is sixty-seven years old and has suddenly become a major bone of contention in the Republican primary fight. Although some may welcome the notion that, at long last, the remaining three in this contest are tackling a serious strategic issue, the rancor still remains. Front-runner Donald Trump has publically called the alliance “obsolete,” and accused the European partners of “ripping off the United States.”
Thus far, Trump has practically no support in this, certainly not from Europe. His chief rival, Senator Ted Cruz, proclaimed Trump to be “wrong,” and that his ideas would mean that “America should withdraw from the world and abandon our allies.” This also, Cruz went on, would provide “a major victory,” both for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and ISIS itself.
Predictably, the response from the media was equally apocalyptic. The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl warned against “chaos and dictatorship” among NATO’s newest members and that western unity would face a “crumbling at the hands of populists and nationalists who would retreat behind refortified borders.” Columnist Anne Applebaum called the Trump comments “… the end of liberal world order as we know it,” while the New York Times, in one editorial, called his ideas, “unhinged, shockingly ignorant [and] bizarre.”
This is all quite understandable. Since 1949, NATO has been the bedrock of American and European order that has carried the alliance through over forty years of Cold War, with an expansion of twelve new members since its end. One does not dismiss this record casually or without reflection, but that is what exactly what Trump has done. A reflection on NATO should not be dismissed outright. Nor should it indicate that the “grandfather” of western security may not be approaching retirement age or that his departure necessarily means a retreat to the First World War.
For the most part, this question depends on the circumstances prompting any reflection and the implications therein. Why should anything, including a military alliance, be sacrosanct or even permanent? In domestic political parlance, “change” is essential; few politicians promise a return to the past or the status quo (except Coolidge). Barack Obama won twice with the slogan “change we can believe in.” That approach should be integral to foreign policy as well, with emphasis on what we “believe in” versus change for its own sake.
Alliances come and go, as do conditions in world politics. In 1954, for example, the United States led the creation of NATO’s South Pacific counterpart, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). With the American retreat from Vietnam in 1975, the purpose for SEATO quickly dissolved, and it ended finally two years later. In 1955, the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO) was formed by Britain and several Islamic nations. U.S. entry in 1958 made it the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), but intermittent quarreling led to its demise in 1979. Thus, NATO is the last survivor among several Cold War coalitions whose life-span reflected the nature and momentum of strategic realities.
Thus, the question remains: does the strategic reality of 2016 require the continuation of an organization formed in 1949? Related questions involve the implications of change, especially what would emerge from any kind of change in a sixty-seven year-old structure, i.e. would it be an improvement?
The first, and most obvious issue, is the question of obsolesce. Obviously, the original purpose of NATO no longer exists. Created to safeguard Western Europe against the Red Army, at a time when the Soviet Union had no nuclear weapons, both the conditions of NATO’s creation and its original purpose have long since disappeared. Article V, the heart of the Treaty, requires consultation in the event of a threat. Article V was never invoked in the entire span of the Cold War and was invoked for the first and only time after 9/11 when NATO troops were dispatched to Afghanistan. NATO has since been involved in a number of lesser roles in support of U.S. anti-terror operations, such as trainers in Iraq, enforcing no-fly zones, etc.
The second and more important issue is whether or not the alliance is needed in the global war on terrorism. The recent attacks in France and Belgium have, at the very least, to call into question the relevance of an alliance formed against a non-existent army in an age of irregular and clandestine terrorism. A related question is what any tampering with NATO might do to the security of member-states, particularly the new entrants. Does the United States, for example, still wish to guarantee the safety of Eastern Europe, including possibly the even newer ones to come, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro?
In 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sent shockwaves throughout NATO when he threatened an “agonizing reappraisal” of the American commitment should they refuse German rearmament. West Germany was rearmed and joined NATO. If a Senate Committee or a think tank proposed something similar, the pundits would be trampling over each other with supportive ideas. Money would flow, conferences held, books published.
A journey of a thousand steps starts with one. If NATO needs mending or replacing, what goes into its place? It depends on how one sees it: as an opportunity or a dilemma.